“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
– Andre Gide
Few have done as much to disprove conventional wisdom and change the world as John Harrison. I’m fascinated with the story of how this persistent, curious and innovative man emerged from nowhere to solve a problem that should have been a universe away from his capacity.
Born in England in 1693, John Harrison grew up working in his father’s carpentry business. He loved to tinker with clocks and built his first pendulum clock before he was 20. About this time, the most horrific naval disaster in British history brought sharp focus to the most vexing problem of sea travel: figuring out precisely where you are.
In 1707, Sir Cloudesley Shovell was taking his fleet through a powerful storm while retreating from a lost war. The navigational tools of the day led him to believe that he was on course when he was actually far from it. He crashed several very expensive ships into several very small islands, resulting in the deaths of around 2,000 men. He knew about the islands but believed they were somewhere else. They were not.
Accurately determining latitude (the parallel horizontal lines on your globe) was a well-established science. But determining longitude was still largely a guess. Wrong guesses were frequent and deadly, which made the inability to accurately calculate longitude a primary barrier to trade and commerce using sea travel.
Following Sir Shovell’s disaster, Parliament set up a system of financial incentives offering today’s equivalent of millions of dollars for finding a simple and practical means to accurately solve “The problem of Longitude”.
Enter: John Harrison
1767 painting of John Harrison, by TJ Tassaert
While the experienced seafaring problem-solvers of the day believed the best solution was in making calculations based on the position of the moon, John Harrison believed he had a better solution. This young woodworker and clockmaker – with no experience in ocean navigation – believed that a timepiece that would accurately display the time at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich England could be the fundamental tool for determining a ship’s distance east or west from that longitudinal point.
His idea was ridiculed, not just because it didn’t fit into the reality of the day, but also be cause the technology, precision and engineering required to overcome changes in temperature, humidity, motion, altitude and other conditions of ocean travel just did not exist at that time.
What John Harrison accomplished – and how he accomplished it – makes for one of the most fascinating stories of modern history. It was a quest that spanned 30 years, but ultimately produced a solution that revolutionized sea travel, trade, commerce and even warfare.
For a great book about John Harrison and his improbably quest, read “Longitude” by Dava Sobel.
What you can learn from John Harrison about business and investing.
1) You don’t have to be born into money.
The man that came up with the simplest solution to one of the deadliest and most expensive problems of his day did not have the benefit of free time and family money. He made do with what he had, and relied on family members for cooperation instead of funding, working closely with his brother and then his son throughout the inventive process.
2) Persistence pays.
In the first 20 years of his 30-year journey, John had gotten married, had a son, became a widower, married again, had two more children, and lost his first son. He also had competitors that benefited from political cronyism, and bureaucrats that sabotaged him. Still, he stuck to his vision and persisted despite many setbacks, and took his case around the politicians and bureaucrats that stood in his way.
Similarly, you and I frequently run into obstacles that could easily sidetrack us or discourage us from patiently pursuing our objectives. There will always something “easier” we can be doing with our money and with our time. But the successful savers, investors and entrepreneurs stay on course.
3) Timing is the most important success factor.
John Harrison succeeded in solving the problem of Longitude because he had a skill and an idea that he recognized as a good fit for the problem. The early timing of his decision to work on a solution was critical. Bill Gross, founder of Idealab, sponsored research that identified the five most important factors in the success of a new venture: Idea; Team; Business Model; Funding; Timing. Of these, he found that Timing is the single most important success factor. (You can read a synopsis of Bill Gross’s research and see his TED talk on “The Single Biggest Reason Startups Succeed”)
For investors, entering the investment field early – as early as possible – is also essential to success. The earlier we begin, the greater the potential for our success in achieving our objectives. The burden many investors face is that waited to get started beyond when they could have started, and that wait is costly.
4) Don’t give up your day job.
Entrepreneurs can take a tip from Harrison: there is great power in a steady income. By sticking with his day job of making clocks while developing his marine timekeeper concepts, Harrison was able to fund his “side hustle” for several years before getting financing from investors and financial awards from Parliament.
“H1”- Completed in 1735, Harrison’s first clock for sea experiment took 5 years of development. (Royal Museums Greenwich)
5) It may be up to you to find new solution.
To help overcome the need for lubrication (viscosity of lubricants changed with the temperature, impacting the accuracy of the timepiece) , plus improve accuracy, Harrison designed the “grasshopper escapement”. This stands as one of his most impressive examples of innovative thinking and shows how getting comfortable with breaking convention can facilitate innovation.
The modern world has benefited from innovations in investing and financial planning that can help you navigate past hazards. You can find short videos and articles on a few of these innovations on my website here and here.
6) Excellence does not have to be expensive.
The renowned clockmakers of the time had fine materials and experienced machinists to help produce exceptional products. John Harrison and his brother James did not have those advantages, and yet they created products with accuracy and precision that was unmatched in their day. By doing the same thing over and over and seeking continuous improvement in their craft, they became expert at the details.
The repetitious process of consistently contributing to our investments and evaluating the progress of our financial plans can put us in great company. It’s not so important how much you earn but what you do with your earnings that determines your ability to build wealth.
Photo: H4 – Final version, completed 1759 (photo – Royal Museum Greenwich)
After persistently applying the tools and resources that available to him, John Harrison found his efforts paying off more and more as the years progressed. Similar to the idea noted in my earlier post on Dividends, Harrison’s efforts and successes ultimately compounded and grew at an accelerating rate. In the last 10 years of his work his net worth grew to multi-millionaire status. Not bad for a carpenter’s son that tinkered with clocks.
He’s a great model for both investors and entrepreneurs.
The opinions expressed in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.